To fill production gap, Boeing looks to sell two F-15s

Years of intense lobbying on the part of the Missouri congressional delegation and Boeing could pay off big for the St. Louis area and the defense giant as the Air Force contends with skyrocketing fighter-jet prices and a serious budget crunch.

The looming cuts in the Air Force’s long-delayed and pricey F/A-22 Raptor and the multinational Joint Strike Fighter — two new-generation aircraft — have given the Missouri delegation a new argument to keep the defense spending flowing to the St. Louis area. Those cuts could prompt the Air Force to keep buying a less expensive, older aircraft, the F-15 Eagle.

Future sales to the Air Force and to prospective foreign buyers hinge on obtaining funding for two aircraft, Boeing argues.

Air Force procurement of the F-15 Eagle technically was terminated in 1991, but Congress revived the program and the production line for the aircraft several times over the years.

And for the 2006 defense budget, lawmakers again are fighting to direct money to Boeing’s plant to keep the production line open, arguing that this time it would benefit the Air Force and national security.

Boeing also sold its F-15 aircraft internationally — to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Japan, which helped keep the production line open through the years.

Moreover, Boeing entered a lucrative deal with South Korea for 40 F-15Ks. Singapore, after a heated competition, also decided to spend $1.7 billion to buy Boeing’s F-15 aircraft.

Through these deals, Boeing may have pulled off a feat; still, a gap in the delivery timeline to South Korea and then Singapore would leave the F-15 production line idle — potentially for a couple of years.

In the past few weeks, new Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Moseley also has mentioned that the Air Force may consider more F-15s as it faces cuts in its F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter programs.

Until the Air Force decides whether to acquire more F-15s, the aircraft’s future depends on its contracts with South Korea and Singapore.

Last September, Boeing submitted an option paper to the Air Force’s air-combat commander for the potential purchase of 144 more F-15Es. The Air Force currently has 224 F-15s in its inventory.

That is where the congressional power comes in handy. This year, the Missouri delegation, led by Sen. Kit Bond (R), a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee; Sen. Jim Talent (R), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Rep. Todd Akin (R), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, have asked for $130 million in the 2006 defense budget to purchase two F-15s. That money would complement the $110 million already appropriated in the 2005 budget for the F-15.

At the last minute, Senate appropriators approved $65 million out of the Air Force’s total request for the F-15, but House appropriators have not honored the request in their defense bill.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee authorized $65 million, according to Akin. But Senate and House appropriators still have to work out whether they will approve $65 million in spending for the F-15 in the conference report.

Akin expressed confidence that Congress will approve $65 million, even though the conference is still hashing out its differences.

“By keeping the line alive, we will maintain the work force,” Bond told The Hill. “To start up the line, it would cost $1 billion.”

He said that he has worked on the Singapore deal for a number of years but that Boeing is still in negotiations with that nation and that the exact timing of the delivery has not been determined.

He said he believes his strongest argument is that the additional money will help the Air Force when it will have to resort to buying more F-15 Es.

“What we have known for a long time is being recognized: The F-15 has not only been the workhorse for a long time, it will be an essential part of the fleet until 2030,” Bond said. “In my conversation with Moseley, I believe that the [Air Force] now understands that it will need at least another 100 F-15s.”

The F-22 buy is going to be capped at 179 aircraft and could amount to even fewer aircraft than that. Initially, the Air Force planned on buying 271 F/A-22 Raptors.

“The F-15 will be the strike-fighter workhorse for at least the next 30 years,” Bond added.

He said that $175 million combined from last year’s and this year’s appropriations can buy one full F-15E and leave enough money for modifications to the production line to make sure it is modernized for the Air Force’s future potential buys.

“It makes a very viable alternative to the F-22,” he said.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing’s rival, makes the F-22, and without it the Air Force would have to receive more F-16s, another Lockheed Martin product.

“This keeps a second production line in operation, which, from an industrial base point, is imperative for national defense and to ensure competition among the two air-jet producers,” Bond said.

Companies providing supplies for the systems and technology for building the F-15 are based throughout the country. Shutting down the F-15 would affect jobs at those companies as well, Bond added.

“This buy will carry us through the first year of the bridge buy 2007-2008. At that point, the [Air Force] will have to determine how many F-15 buys they want,” he said.

However, the decision to add more money to the program does not sit well with some watchdogs, who for years have called the F-15 production lines questionable pork.

“That is pushing the frontier. I would not confuse that with national defense, but they are working for the folks back home,” Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group, said about the prospect that one F-15 would come with a price tag of more than $100 million.

Aboulafia also added that keeping the production line up and running is a Boeing business decision, rather than a national-security issue, especially because the company has just pocketed two lucrative deals. It should be Boeing’s business decision to figure out what to do with the one-year gap between deliveries, he said.

Bond also noted that once Boeing starts producing a lot more aircraft per year, the price would decrease to $65 million per plane.

“By buying one airplane [now] if you can keep the line open, you keep an alternative there,” he said.

The $65 million is “exactly what we needed,” he added. While the Boeing plant falls into Rep. Lacy Clay’s (D) district, much of the work force comes from Akin’s district. The plant, depending on how many aircraft are produced per year, can employ between 500 and 2000 people, he said.